Reviews

Xbox Wireless Headset – Best in Class?

Little over one month ago, Microsoft officially unveiled their new first-party wireless gaming headphones with the simple moniker, Xbox Wireless Headset. The headset’s announcement boasted a bevy of hardware and software features previously unheard of at its price point of USD 99, and plenty of gaming pundits, and users alike, were cautiously optimistic. Could a $99 headset promising the combination of features and audio capability compete in a market where gamers often spend double, or more, for the same combination? Well, the Xbox Wireless Headset has been in my possession for nearly a week and in that time I have had the opportunity to put them through the gamut, as well as compare them to a range of other headphones (including the USD 200 SteelSeries Arctis 9X), and my answer is a resounding yes. To provide some insight as to why, and perhaps assist in your decision for your next Xbox/PC headset, join me as I cover all the elements that make the Xbox Wireless Headset such an incredible value.

Right out of the box, the headset oozes style while maintaining a simplicity in design that eschews the gaudy bright lights and color accents that mar most gaming headsets. With the exception of the power button and millimeter thick band of Xbox-green on each of the headsets dials, the entire chassis and ear cushions are black. If not for the ever-present, but foldable, mic there aren’t any other clear indications that the headphones are intended for gaming as their primary focus. 

Microsoft’s hardware engineering team took several cues from their previous entries in the headset market, specifically the most recent Surface Headphones; their signature volume dials return, only in the Xbox Wireless Headset, one is used to control the general volume level while the other manages the balance between chat and game audio. The dual-dial system is not unlike that of the Steelseries 9x, albeit the Xbox headset’s solution is arguably a touch more elegant in its inconspicuous design and contextual “click” on the balance dial that signifies the game and chat audio are at equal levels. Luckily, other functions are just as intuitive: pairing to the Xbox (or PC with the Xbox Wireless Adapter) is simple with a long press to the power button, and the mic has a subtle mute button where it connects to the headset (making a quick mute effortless). It’s important to note that unlike most headsets on the market, the Xbox Wireless Headset uses the Xbox Wireless protocol so there are no dongles or connections to worry about. These are not the first headsets to do so, however I found the pairing process across my various Xbox consoles considerably more reliable than the somewhat finicky process on the Steelseries. Even at a price of “just” $100, features mean little if the audio and build quality are subpar and this is where things get a bit more nuanced.

Tackling build quality first, it should be noted that there is a lot that the Xbox Wireless Headset does right. As someone that has to use glasses for every waking moment, I often find most headphones uncomfortable either from the onset, or after using them for several hours; over-the-ear sets tend to be a little bit better in this regard, but there are still several pairs that I own where I use them sparingly. Luckily, this headset seems to have been built with every user-type in mind, as I’ve been able to use them in multiple four hour Sea of Thieves sessions with little to no ear or head pain. They are not quite as “sensationally-invisible” as the wonderful ski-goggle material that dons the headband of the Arctis 9x, nor are the cups as breathable as the aforementioned headset. That said, aside from warm ears after my several hour testing sessions, I think most will be comfortable with the materials. One area that I am a little concerned about is the material used to coat the ear cups, polyurethane leather; this same material is utilized across a variety of headphones, including my old Polk 4Shot and Polk Melees, both of which deteriorated after about a year’s worth of use. Of course, not all PU leather is created equally as I do have two pairs of headphones that have withstood the test of time. Even then I keep reminding myself that this set is $99, which is 50-100% less than some of those aforementioned sets, so I am less inclined to feel that it detracts from the value proposition. 

Speaking of value proposition, Microsoft promised “best in class” audio when they announced the new wireless headset, and it is high time to discuss whether they deliver on that promise. While I feel that it is important to note that audio, and all its intricacies, are a highly subjective matter, I would argue that there is an objective measure of whether a set of speakers or headphones produce bad sound: missing frequencies and indistinguishable tones, for example, are great indicators of bad sound. Furthermore, while I refrain from calling myself an audiophile, I am definitely an audio gadget guru with enough time spent around musicians and radio stations to be able to identify the difference between “good” and “bad” audio. 

The Xbox Wireless Headset sits firmly in the former category, and produces arguably excellent audio for its price range, though that is not without some caveats. Straight out of the box, the headset is more than a wee bit bass-heavy and perhaps more closely tuned with the audio profile of Dolby Atmos. The included six-month trial for the license probably should have been my first guess. However, that is not to say that that stereo, Windows Sonic, or DTS will suffer as a result; on the contrary, Windows Sonic and DTS are directly supported, and in some use cases offer a better audio representation than Dolby Atmos. Regardless of which audio profile is chosen however, I found that I needed to tweak the mid and high frequencies to slightly elevated levels to bring out some of the tones that the default settings may have masked slightly with the bass-heavy presentation. 

Luckily, the level of fine-tuning on the Xbox Wireless Headset is something not before seen to this level on console, as the Xbox Accessories app makes all the adjustments a breeze. The equalizer settings modified in the app carry over to all of the audio profile selections, potentially saving time from further modifications in the Dolby Access or DTS Sound Unbound apps, and there are quite a few additional functions able to be modified in the Xbox app. Aside from the customizable five frequency EQ, there are prebuilt EQs for various scenarios, mic monitoring settings, and an automatic voice-detection mute. Overall, that facet of the experience is leaps and bounds above the competition which usually requires additional customization occur via a PC/Mac app instead of an integrated experience on the Xbox itself.

Aside from the general mic quality, I was eager to test the additional features, especially the auto-mute feature touted to automatically detect the user’s voice in order to reduce ambient noises. My wife was my control group in my experiments with the mic quality tests, as we both previously used the Arctis 9x headsets religiously, and after both testing the mic I came away impressed. The auto-mute worked fantastically, especially compared to the Steelseries where the smallest misplacement can result in the airy pummel of the wearer’s breath; the Xbox headset was able to discern voice from a myriad of other sounds ranging from cats’ meows, laundry machines running, and the occasional allergy-induced sniffle. As for the quality of the mic’s audio reproduction, I too felt that the sound punched above the weight of other headsets in the price range, and arguably those above it. The Arctis 9x, for example, will often clip or struggle to pick up every syllable at times, but in my 30+ hours of testing the Xbox Wireless Headset I never experienced the same issue. Even when auto-mute was off for testing, the mic is enabled or disabled with the small button near the back of the mic stem made quick mutes for the occasional cough a breeze; though the mute light is a bit difficult to see at times, especially compared to the beacon of orange light on the Steelseries. Furthermore, the overall audio quality sounds great. I wouldn’t expect it to be compete with a Shure or Blue mic for podcasting, so it is a bit odd to see some compare it to such (especially given the cost deltas and singular capability of said devices), but when compared to the half dozen or so gaming headsets I’ve owned over the past five years, the Xbox headset ranks in the upper echelon. 

The Xbox Wireless Headset also stands among its pricier peers with some additional features and niceties that often accompany headsets more than double its price. For starters, Xbox’s new headset allows simultaneous pairing to an Xbox/PC and a bluetooth device. In testing, the feature worked much like the Steelseries headset, and with audio levels additionally controlled by the bluetooth host, a fine-tune balance is able to be achieved so that Discord chats, music, or podcasts can be prioritized (or minimized) over the game audio. If I had to levy a criticism against the pairing process for Bluetooth, it would be that the pairing is achieved via the same power/sync button that is used to pair to an Xbox console; this can lead to unwanted system boot ups, as well as being generally a bit cumbersome if you only want to use them for Bluetooth functionality. Compared to the Steelseries, which has a separate power/Xbox pairing button from the Bluetooth power/pairing button, it seems like a wee bit of an oversight. Much like most gaming headsets in this price range, there is no active noise cancelling however it should be noted that the seal formed from the cups’ and the materials used do a decent job at passive noise cancellation, even for someone like me that uses glasses. Finally, battery life is rather competent for the size and price; completing over two full charge cycles, I was able to achieve an average of ~15 hours each charge, and that was with a mix of the Xbox and Bluetooth wireless functionality. 

Steelseries Arctis 9x (left) and Xbox Wireless Headset (right)

It is odd to have spent this much time waxing poetic about a set of headphones without discussing the audio quality of the cups themselves, but that is a testament to the packed features and quality more than any condemnation of the sound. Let me be clear, these drivers sing when properly tuned, especially when you consider the cost compared to others. For the majority of my gaming sessions I used the Dolby Atmos audio profile and the difference between the Xbox Wireless Headset was night and day compared to the majority of my headset. Directionality was precise and sourcing bullet origin in Gears 5 was a breeze, and explosions were meaty and filled with expected percussion. Furthermore, playing campaign really highlighted the range of the headphones in that dialog never seemed drowned out by the bass, nor did it seem quiet or muddied. 

I typically use my 5.1 audio setup for the majority of my gaming sessions, and with hundreds of hours in a game like Sea of Thieves, I would say I have memorized the sounds of the game and how they “should” sound when coming from powerful speakers. I was honestly a bit taken aback when setting sail for the first time with Xbox’s new headset. The crashing of waves hit with a palpable force, wood creaked with a definable source of origin, and thunder billowed with a sense of presence rarely felt outside of the set of tower speakers comprising the audio setup I’m attuned to. Playing the hurdy-gurdy, the various notes came across clearly and concisely though, even with the aforementioned tuning, bass was still a bit more pronounced. I definitely would not say that the bass prominence is a detriment, but it is worth noting.

Moving beyond gaming, I was pleasantly surprised by the versatility of the Xbox Wireless Headset’s drivers, especially in regards to music where many of these sets fall short. I performed the same set of tests I put all of my new audio equipment through: listening to a range of genres to test the ability to highlight different frequencies, as well as test the ability to clearly differentiate voices and instruments. One particular test that has always been a quick go-to is “White Foxes” by Susanne Sundfør, as the track begins with and maintains a punchy bass line throughout while branching into some meteoric highs and synth mids at varying stages; the song also features a water drop effect that echoes and reverbs across channels. The Xbox headset reproduced the song in stride, and while the bass was a bit heavy in sections, it never drowned any other element and the range of the track was clearly showcased. Even at higher volumes in the music testing, I never experienced distortion or other sonic abnormalities.  

Movies provided much of the same experience as gaming, though I did find that depending on the source I needed to adjust my audio profile a bit more. For example, when streaming Prime videos I felt as though DTS provided a bit more of a balanced reproduction than Dolby Atmos. I found similar results when jumping to Blu-Rays, but of course that could be down to how spatial audio is recreated from theses sources more than anything. Nothing detrimental, but it is something that may require some additional tuning when putting the headset to cinematic use. Beyond that, just like with some of the games I tested with, movies produced an audio presentation that never drowned out dialog, even in scenes with soaring orchestration and booming explosions. Blade Runner 2049 is my reference UHD Blu-Ray for testing Dolby Atmos, and I was stunned by how competent the drivers were able to reproduce what took nearly $1000 to emulate with my tower speakers. Again, dialog is never drowned out or muddy, and even in the scenes where speech is barely above a whisper, the headset reproduced the audio clearly and concisely. Hans Zimmer’s score features sweeping synth tones and thunderous bass that largely comes through without issue, though I did notice some of the mids near the end fight scene get a little overwhelmed by some of the score and sound effects. The bass however still comes through cleanly throughout the film and effects like K’s gunshots, or the glass blowout in Deckard’s hideout, really highlight how capable these headphones are. 

After all this, I think it should come as no surprise that if asked whether I think someone should spend their hard-earned cash on the Xbox Wireless Headset, I would unequivocally say yes. There are a few shortcomings and a few annoyances, but nothing that I would call a functional detriment and any time that I came close to complaining that it did not produce sound as good as my Sennheisers or Polks, I had to remind myself that the Xbox headset cost a fraction of those other headphones. In that regard, the value proposition for the Xbox Wireless Headset is rather unparalleled in the price range with its combination of overall great audio reproduction and the absolute truck-full of features. While Xbox’s marketing specified the audio as “best-in-class”, I would argue that this headset sits above its peers, in a class of its own. 

Daniel "Knottian" Knott

Software and Systems Management Engineer. Lover of Xbox, gaming, and all forms of media. Husband and feline shepherd, co-host of You Had Me At Halo, news sleuth, mod, and team responder.

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